NO OPERA by Richard Wagner could have been more dramatic. It looked as if it was directed by a genius.
It started low-key. A little piece of paper was thrust into the hand of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol as he was reviewing the Independence Day parade. It said that Egyptian troops were entering the Sinai peninsula.
From there on alarm grew. Every day brought menacing new reports. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, issued blood-curdling threats. UN peacekeepers were withdrawn.
In Israel, worry turned into fear, and fear into fright. Eshkol sounded weak. When he tried to raise public morale with a speech over the radio, he stumbled and seemed to stutter. People started talking about a Second Holocaust, about the destruction of Israel.
I was one of the very few who remained cheerful. At the height of public despair, I published an article in Haolam Hazeh, the news magazine I edited, under the headline "Nasser has Walked into a Trap." Even my wife thought that was crazy.
MY GOOD cheer had a simple reason.
A few weeks before, I had given a talk in a Kibbutz on the Syrian border. As is customary, I was invited to have coffee afterwards with a select group of members. There I was told that "Dado" (General David Elazar), the commander of the Northern sector, had lectured there the week before, and then had coffee. Like me.
After swearing me to secrecy, they disclosed that Dado had told them -- after swearing them to secrecy -- that every evening, before going to bed, he prayed to God that Nasser would move his troops into the Sinai desert. "There we shall destroy them," Dado had assured them.
Nasser did not want the war. He knew that his army was quite unprepared. He was bluffing, in order to please the Arab masses. He was egged on by the Soviet Union, whose leaders believed that Israel was about to attack their main client in the region, Syria, as part of a worldwide American plot.
(The Soviet ambassador, Dmitri Chuvakhin, invited me for a talk and disclosed the plot to me. If so, I said, why not ask your ambassador in Damascus to advise the Syrians to stop their border attacks on us, at least temporarily? The ambassador broke into laughter. "Do you really believe that anyone there listens to our ambassador?")
Syria had allowed Yasser Arafat's new Palestinian Liberation Movement (Fatah) to launch small and ineffectual guerilla actions from its border. They also spoke about an Algerian-style "popular liberation war." In response, the Israeli Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, had threatened them with a war to change the regime in Damascus.
Abd-al-Nasser saw an easy opportunity to assert Egypt's leadership of the Arab world by coming to the defense of Syria. He threatened to throw Israel into the sea. He announced that he had mined the Straits of Tiran, cutting Israel off from the Red Sea. (As it transpired later, he had not sown a single mine).
Three weeks passed, and the tension became unbearable. One day Menachem Begin saw me in the Knesset lobby, drew me into a side room and implored me: "Uri, we are political opponents, but in this emergency, we are all one. I know that your magazine has a lot of influence on the younger generation. Please use it to raise their morale!"
All the reserve units, the backbone of the army, were mobilized. There were hardly any men to be seen in the streets. Still Eshkol and his cabinet hesitated. They sent the chief of the Mossad to Washington to make sure that the US would support an Israeli action. Under growing public pressure, he formed a National Unity government and appointed Moshe Dayan as Minister of Defense.
WHEN THE bow was strained to near breaking point, the Israeli army was unleashed. The troops -- mostly reserve soldiers who had been abruptly torn from their families and who had been waiting with growing impatience for three weeks -- flew like an arrow.
I was attending the Knesset session on that first day of the war. In the middle of it, we were told to go to the bomb shelter, because the Jordanians in nearby East Jerusalem had begun to shell us. While we were there, a friend of mine, a high-ranking official, whispered in my ear: "It's all over. We have destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force."